Most children of the Menominee American Indian tribe begin school with a precocious understanding of biology, whether they live on or off the reservation. From the time they enter school through the fourth grade, they consistently score above the national average in science--their best subject--on standardized tests. But by the eighth grade, the same tests show science as their worst subject, with scores below the national average.

The reason?

Conflicting world views between Menominee culture and the way biology is taught in the classroom may be to blame, suggested Northwestern University psychology professor Douglas Medin, PhD, at APA's 2005 Annual Convention.

"There is a clash between the Menominee concept of nature and the typical European-American view," said Medin. "Indian parents want their children to understand that they are a part of nature, not to understand how to dominate or care for it."

The dissonance between the way science is taught in school and Menominee cultural views grows as the material becomes more advanced, and Menominee children grow increasingly disinterested because they fail to see their values, experiences and worldview reflected in the curriculum, Medin said.

Although researchers shouldn't think of culture as an independent variable, Medin said, those who are selecting populations for cross-cultural studies can find a necessary and important starting point when they understand differing cultural perceptions and viewpoints, such as the schism between Menominee culture and science taught through a Euro-American cultural lens. Medin's point is echoed in a study he recently co-authored with lead author Scott Atran, PhD, of the University of Michigan, and Norbert Ross, PhD, of Vanderbilt University, in the November issue of APA's Psychological Review (Vol. 112, No. 4).

Undergraduate knowledge

Another situation in which Medin said researchers should consider their study populations is research using college students as reference populations. Researchers need to ask themselves how well undergraduates' responses in cross-cultural studies carry over to the broader world, he said.

Medin noted how in one study he handed Northwestern University students a list of 80 tree names. He told them to circle any names they had heard of before, regardless of whether they knew anything about them. He found that fewer than half of the students had any familiarity with trees such as alder, buckeye or tulip--all of which are common on the university's campus.

The results indicate that undergraduates may not work well as a comparison population in, for example, research on nature-knowledgeable Itza' Mayan elders because they may not be a valid "standard" when it comes to biology.

"We've long treated undergraduate students as 'the standard' and treated anyone who knows more about nature as an expert," he said. "But when one takes the knowledge of the typical member of a nonindustrialized society as the standard, undergraduate knowledge would be considered much below average."

More valid might be a population that relates more directly to nature, such as landscapers, taxonomists or park-maintenance employees.

Traditional lab studies with undergraduates may only allow researchers to see abstract or default notions that come into play when one has little or no relevant knowledge, he said.

Resolving cultural problems

Medin is currently working on research with Menominee and European-Americans to test aspects of cultural compatibility to determine what is behind such problems as the Menominee students' difficulties in science.

Because Medin does not think there is an "insurmountable cultural divide" between the two groups, he believes that systematically identifying and bridging barriers between the two notions of nature could benefit both cultures. As a result, he's working in a research partnership that includes the American Indian Center of Chicago and a tribal college on a Menominee reservation to develop a culturally based educational framework to use in an after-school program. Similar projects with Native Hawaiian populations have helped students' school adjustment and academic achievement, he said.

Moreover, by shining light on the cultural differences, Medin also aims to improve the validity of researchers' reference population data.

"Even if researchers don't care about culture, they need to understand how it affects their work," he said.